This Straight Shooter Is Off-Target

By letting his deft response to September 11 become an obsession with Saddam, Bush went way wrong. If only he would admit it

By Ciro Scotti

On a day that began as clear and shimmering as the morning of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush came to the GOP Convention, cowboy hat in hand, to ask his fellow Republicans and countrymen for four more years.

In three days of regimented run-up to his acceptance of the Republican nomination, Bush has been endlessly lauded for his steely resolve in the blood-curdling face of the terrorist attack that devastated this city. With a staggering deficit piled up on his watch, a moody economy, and a social agenda far to the right of most mainstream voters, the President has positioned himself as the candidate best equipped to continue prosecuting the War on Terror.

A man of uncommon clarity on a mission of historic purpose. A shooter straighter than Annie Oakley and a talker plainer than Harry Truman. A warmhearted, loyal, God-country-and-family-loving public servant who doesn't "need" to be President, as First Mother Barbara Bush says, but has been called.


  Democratic Senator Zell Miller said Wednesday night that he looked into George's soul and saw that it was pure. And General Tommy Franks, who after capturing Iraq made the quickest exit from a war zone since General Jubilation T. Cornpone, said on Thursday night that he looked into George's eyes and saw that he was true.

In short, the President is a good man, as he likes to say of others.

That's the gossamer web that Republicans in creepy lockstep have been spinning all over the Bush Presidency and all over town this week. But how much of it is true?

For starters, the President got dealt the mother of all crummy hands. Unlike Bill Clinton, who walked into an economy about to boom and faced few crises that weren't of his own making, George W. Bush got slammed with one Category 5 hurricane after another: the dotcom bust and tanking economy, the lurid revelations of corporate chicanery and deception, the shriveling of a vibrant job market, and finally the insidious assault on an unsuspecting America.


  In that most important of tests -- the tragedy of September 11 -- Bush responded with the right mix of empathy, strength, reassurance, and righteous retaliation. There are not a lot of fair-thinking Americans who would argue that point.

I was about to write: "And then along came Iraq." But Iraq didn't just happen. George W. Bush and his band of neoconservative firebrands -- the McBundy brothers and Walt Whitman Rostows of their generation -- extended the war on the September 11 terrorists from Afghanistan to Iraq because the toppling of Saddam Hussein was a policy goal of the Administration from Day One.

That's what fired Treasury Secretary (and onetime pal of Vice-President Dick Cheney) Paul O'Neill wrote in his tell-all book about his curious days in the Bush Administration. As former Bush anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke wrote in Against All Enemies, in the days immediately after September 11 the President seemed obsessed with linking the attack to Saddam.


  Clarke told 60 Minutes Correspondent Lesley Stahl: "The President dragged me into a room with a couple of other people and said, 'I want you to find out whether Iraq did this.' Now he never said, 'Make it up.' But the entire conversation left me absolutely no doubt that George Bush wanted me to come back with a report that said Iraq did this."

All week in New York, Republicans of every stripe and rank have tried to mush together Bush's response to 9/11 and the war in Iraq, but repetition doesn't make right. The two are distinct. Determination and swiftness of action -- qualities that made him admirable in one instance -- turned into intractability and recklessness in the other.

Certainly, Bush was badly served by the people on whom he so heavily depended -- as he still does. He was badly served by Cheney, whom O'Neill said was a different person than he had known years before, remote and unmovable in his views.

By Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose war planning was brilliant but whose postwar planning was dismal.

By Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and advisers like Richard Perle, who used a tragedy to advance their protect-Israel agenda.

By Attorney General John Ashcroft, whose assault on civil liberties has appalled the courts and scared the country.

By ex-CIA chief George Tenet, who failed to distinguish intelligence fact from fiction -- or at least to make clear the distinction.

By National Security Adviser Condi Rice, who didn't protect Bush from himself.

And by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who caved at a moment of truth.


  On Wednesday, Cheney said John Kerry had "made the wrong call" on critical foreign policy issues during his Senate career. But what could have been a worse call than invading Iraq when America, with the support of the world, should have been rooting out Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda cells from every rotten cranny of the planet?

On Thursday night, Bush had a chance to stop the spinning, stop exploiting September 11 to justify a misguided invasion, be the straight shooter everyone claims he is, demonstrate the "tendency toward candor" that former Senator and current Law and Order actor Fred Thompson hailed in his introduction of the President.

But of course that never happened because Bush's bluntness doesn't extend to saying: "I was wrong." Nor even to suggesting that he acted imprudently in the heat of his anger against terrorism and eagerness to nail Saddam. Instead, America was treated to more of the shading of the truth that Republicans -- nice people that they are -- have been peddling on the sidewalks of New York.

Looking out on the sea of Bush supporters screaming and shaking "USA" signs as the President came on stage, you had to wonder how many of them were in Manhattan when the defining moment of their convention took place on September 11. But it wasn't hard to figure out why more of the New Yorkers who lived through that bright and shining nightmare of a day won't be voting for George W. Bush.

Scotti is senior editor for government and sports business for BusinessWeek and offers offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only on BW Online

Edited by Mike McNamee

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